Tartan & Highland Dress

The Clan Tradition


Highland Dress, including tartan, is of ancient origin and has been particularly associated with the Scottish Highlands for many centuries. Indeed, following the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, it was regarded as such a potent symbol of Scottish self-assertiveness that it was banned by statute for nearly 40 years.

Clan tartan, however, is a much more recent development, which only developed after the Act of Proscription was repealed in 1782. After this date, fuelled by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, there was a furious demand for tartans associated with a particular family name, which the commercial weavers of the period were entirely happy to satisfy. This is also the period when Highland Dress was embraced by Scottish families outside the Highlands, including the Hays.

The Hay Tartans


Available in modern, ancient or reproduction colours. First appeared in Vestiarium Scotticum, by the brothers John and Charles Sobieski Stuart, in 1842.

Hay Modern
Hay Modern
Hay Ancient
Hay Ancient
The Hay Tartan
The Hay Tartan

Hunting Hay

A counterchange on the design of the Hay tartan (above.) Hunting tartans were developed as a response to the harsh, bright shades of the early aniline dyes, and the fashion for a move away from red-based designs.

Hay Hunting
Hay Hunting

Dress Hay

A trade sett, also a colour change on the main Hay tartan.


Usually regarded as a Drummond or Grant tartan but adopted by several cadet branches of the Hay of Leys family.


The oldest of the Hay tartans, first appearing Cockburn Collection (1810-15) as Leith, and about the same time in the Highland Society of London's collection (1816-22) as Hay.   It was recorded in the pattern books of the weaving firm of Wilson of Bannockburn's 1819 Key Pattern Book as Leith.  By the 1840s it was sold as Hay and Leith.

Hay Leith
Hay Leith


A sett recorded in tartan scholar James Brydone’s book of 1862.

Hay Stuart

Another Sobieski Stuart sett, taken from the period when they used the name ‘Stuart Hay.’ Very similar to their Stuart Victoria tartan, but with two red lines instead of one on the white ground.


Produced in the late 18th century by Wilson of Bannockburn in two versions and probably named after the district. The design is not unique: it is also variously known as Ross, Rae, MacRae, Huntly and The Prince's Own, tartans designed by Wilsons around the same time.

Hay Stewart
Hay Stewart

There are also references to a personal tartan belonging to the Marquis of Tweeddale, although when asked the question, the late 13th Marquis had no knowledge of it.

Of the above, only the Hay tartan, in both modern and ancient colours, and Leith Hay are commercially available.

The Hay tartan, in reproduction colours, and the Hunting Hay are available to members from the Clan Hay Society at cost price.

The Leask and Boyd tartans were both designed by Captain T.S. Davidson based on the colours and motifs of the Hay tartan to reflect the connection of these families with the Hays.

Highland Dress as it is worn in Scotland

Clan Chief
Clan Chief the 24th Earl of Erroll with his son and heir, Lord Hay, at Holyrood in 2009. Lord Hay is wearing a kilt that belonged to his great great grandfather, Victor, 21st Earl

Unlike heraldry, which has the protection of the law, there are no rules governing the use of tartan, although a number of conventions have arisen. You are perfectly entitled to wear any tartan you like to look of. In the context of clan gatherings, however, the custom is to wear one of the tartans of your clan, or the clan to which you have pledged allegiance.

In the case of the Hays, most people opt for either the Hay tartan in the ancient or reproduction colours, or the Hunting Hay. Some ladies, and a few men, prefer the Hay tartan in the modern colours, which are much brighter than the other shades.

The kilt should be made of eight yards of material and in length, should reach no lower than the centre of the kneecap. You can test this by kneeling down: when kneeling, the bottom of the kilt should just brush the ground.

Day dress is usually accompanied by a leather sporran. The sporran can be of any design – recently there has been a revival of interest in antique animal head sporrans made from wildcat or badger – but sporrans for day wear are usually relatively plain. No seasoned kilt wearer will ever be seen in day dress wearing a sporran suspended from a chain belt: he knows from bitter experience that the constant abrasive action of the chain against the same part of the kilt will quickly wear through the material.

Stockings should reach to just below the knee and for day wear are generally dark in colour. Those used to the kilt will avoid white socks during the day, for the practical reason that they attract dirt too easily. Any design of leather shoe is acceptable, but the convention is to wear black or brown leather brogues, and most people’s taste would suggest shoes should be the same colour as the leather sporran.

Jackets for day wear are usually of tweed with horn buttons, and are of the ‘cutaway’ style which is particularly designed for wear with the kilt. Other upper garments, such as the flamboyant shirts and leather waistcoats or jerkins sometimes favoured by American Scots are perfectly acceptable and often striking, but they are not worn in the mother country, and contribute to the stereotype of the American in a kilt.

For evening wear, the tweed jacket is replaced with one of velvet or black cloth, usually with silver buttons, with or without tails. The sporran is generally silver-mounted, made of horsehair or animal fur, which may be either real or synthetic. Stockings may be white or of the principal colours of the tartan. Plain black shoes are acceptable, although some men prefer open-fronted brogues which lace around the ankle. A ballroom plaid may be worn, attached with a plaid brooch to the left shoulder.

Ladies wear pleated tartan skirts rather than kilts and sporrans, unless they are part of a pipe band where the same uniform is worn by both sexes. For evening wear, sashes are often worn. Once again, there are no firm rules here, although the custom is that sashes are worn over the right shoulder unless the lady is a Clan Chief in her own right or the wife of a Chief, in which case it is worn on the left. (A recent convention has extended this to the wives of Colonels of Highland regiments, for reasons that make little sense.)

The Sgian Dubh (literally, black knife) and kilt pin are optional extras. The Sgian dubh is a small dagger carried in one of the stockings. The kilt pin is a 19th century invention born of Victorian prudery, but if well designed can be a pleasing piece of jewellery.

If you choose to wear a bonnet, there are a number of badges that can be added to it. Those with a personal coat of arms wear a silver or pewter badge of their crest surrounded by a plain circlet. For others, the correct clan cap badge is one of your Chief’s crest, surrounded by a strap and buckle.

Eagle feathers are worn in the bonnet by those so entitled. Three eagle feathers indicate Chiefs of whole names. Two feathers are worn by heads of great territorial houses, representatives of baronial families with antecedents extending back to before 1592 (the last time barons sat in parliament as of right), and Captains of clans. One feather indicates a laird or a lady/gentleman with their own coat of arms.

© Alan Hay 2010